(Editor’s Note: The following is a series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY — It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when Ocean City was a small, sleepy resort town with only a few restaurants and a handful of residents. Before the motels and condos and crowds became commonplace, the town was quiet with large stretches of empty beaches. This was the Ocean City that John Jarvis grew up in and where he discovered his love for the ocean and his dedication to the beach patrol.
John’s father was a musician who had spent a lot of time in the 1940’s playing in venues at the beach. He was well known and liked and loved life at the beach. So, when the opportunity arrived for a more permanent and better paying job in OC, he and his wife leapt at the chance. He remembered, “In 1946, my parents had the concession at the Shoreham Hotel on 3rd Street. They offered the ‘American Plan.’” As John explains it, this was an early version of the “Destination Vacation.” As part of the plan, “you got a bath, parking, and all your meals. Most of the hotels did it that way as there were really only three real restaurants in town.”
John came along two years later. Despite growing up and spending his days near the ocean, he admits that “I didn’t learn to swim until I was 13. But when I started, I never left.” So taken by this newfound love of swimming, John found every way he could to practice and continue to improve. A nearby hotel had a luxurious pool that John described as straight out of an “Esther Williams movie. It was fantastic and I talked the owner into letting me do all kinds of jobs for him so that I could go swimming.” One person who did take notice of the young man’s love for swimming was George Schoepf (future captain) of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. “George took me under his wing and taught me how to swim in the ocean,” John said.
The OCBP officer trained John in all the skills and techniques that could save his life in the surf, as well as others. As the summer of 1963 began, John was only 15 years old, but George knew he was ready.
At this point in time, the OCBP test consisted of swimming eight blocks. John noted that “there was one guy who looked really out of shape taking the test with me. I didn’t think he was going to make it.” Sure enough, the guy started going under right after the test began. “I had to do a cross-chest carry and pull him into shore,” he said. That was it as far as George and the other officers were concerned. “I got the job, and I didn’t have to take the test,” he said.
John was sent to sit the stand on 33rd Street. But at this time, the area covered by the beach patrol only extended to 41st Street and the guards at the northern end of town were spread thin. “There wasn’t another stand south of me until the Boardwalk on 28th Street, and the next guy north of me was on 37th Street. After that was the last guard stand. I didn’t have any rescues that summer. Not one,” he recalled.
Despite the dull start, John loved the job and would return for the next seven summers. George made sure that John was given responsibility over some of the new guards. “I was training people. At the time I wanted to be where the action was and not taking care of new guys. I didn’t know it but it was to become a calling for me,” John said.
John did eventually make his way downtown and to the crowded beaches where he had his share of action. The day that sticks with him most was the day he got knocked out. He said, “I was sent to the middle inlet and one day we had rough seas and a huge shore break. We had to go for a rescue and I tried to swim out only to be shoved right back on the beach. The waves were big and it was so shallow with only a foot of draw. I thought I could leap over it. It picked me up, threw me on shore and knocked me out for about 30 seconds. George made it in and took the guy around the pier to safety. He was a beast in the water,” he said. When the rescue was over, John apologized for what had happened, but George stopped him and said, “Don’t be afraid to do your job.” John took that remark to heart and said that it become his guiding philosophy from that day forward.
It was during his years of service that the town of Ocean City annexed all the property up to the Delaware line. Literally overnight, the OCBP was tasked with expanding their ranks “from 41 to 125 guards. And we didn’t lose anyone.” John credits George Schoepf with this extraordinary accomplishment. He said, “When they expanded the area we had to guard, they named George as Assistant Captain. That’s the reason we were able to succeed.”
John rose through the ranks, first being named sergeant and then, after he turned 21, to lieutenant. “Lieutenants were actually deputized at that time, and they had to wait until after my birthday to make me one,” he said. He probably would have stayed longer in the job he loved, but in 1969 he was drafted into the Army. That was the end of his beach patrol days. Although he had considered becoming a teacher in order to continue working summers on the beach patrol, when he finally returned to Ocean City, John had come to the conclusion that it was time to find something where he could make more money. In 1972, he started up Atlantic Pools which is celebrating 50 years in business.
True to the words of his friend, Captain George Schoepf, he took on his life without fear. And while he was living his life, John found a way to stay close to the beach, continue his love of swimming, and watch as his small town grew to the giant city it is today. He remains active with the city and the beach patrol alumni today.